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27 July 2021
Opinion: Scenes from the Frontline: the Days that Durban Burned

Let’s face facts, as a nation we expected fallout from the incarceration of ex-President Jacob Zuma, at the same time as we cheered the ConCourt for this long overdue course of justice. Yet none of us, myself as a political analyst included, were prepared for the incendiary violence that began the night of July 11. I arrived in the absolute epicentre of the chaos on Monday morning the 12th of July at King Shaka airport. It was eerily quiet, all shops at the airport were closed and there were hardly any taxis. The friend who was to fetch me had to turn around as so many roads were closed. I was stuck and stymied. What to do next? 

Finally, a BOLT arrived for a man going to Ballito and I hitched a ride, unsure of where I was going. My driver, Ntuthuko Vincent Malamba from Amanzimtoti, who remains my personal hero of the day, promised me that he could get me to the Bluff. Are you sure? I questioned over and over as I had heard that the CBD was a war zone, and we had to drive through it as the other roads were still blocked. “Don’t worry”, said Ntuthuko, “it has turned to looting in the CBD now, they aren’t interested in anything else, we will be fine”. He was right. We drove straight through the CBD where groups were congregated wearing designer clothing and deciding where next to go next for some free shopping. Nobody was carrying food, nobody cared about us. Ntuthuko constantly reassured me of this, as my fear was clearly radiating as brightly as the red traffic light that halted us for what seemed like an eternity. 

I arrived safe on the Bluff to see groups of civilians of mixed ethnicity standing in front of shops and restaurants. For the rest of the day, I binge watched the horror of the looting and arson that ripped through eThekwini. What stood out was the bravery of the reporters on the ground and their incomprehension as to the sheer scale of the chaos. We saw women with groceries, for sure, but we also saw shops stripped of everything from TVs to tyres. It was a complete free for all. 

We watched reporters show us the police standing by, helpless, outnumbered. We saw President Ramaphosa on Monday night, calmly (too calmly?) calling for the chaos to stop, and reassuring us as a nation that the SANDF would be deployed en masse. Three days later there were still only 2500 troops deployed. We binge watched more, and more. As a nation we are still traumatised and scrambling for answers.

When analysing the protests that engulfed KZN, Gauteng and other parts of the country the week of 12th July, much of the initial analysis by the media has focused on single element causes. But why are single causal analyses, such as food riots, pro-Zuma factionalism in the ANC, master-minded conspiracy theories involving unnamed ’dirty dozen’ instigators; structural and COVID inequalities; the failure of the police/army to respond fast enough, etc. so unsatisfying? 

Single causes, to the man in the street, are intuitively insufficient. Take my BOLT driver Ntuthuko, as a case in point. He was highly aware of the shift from political protest to food raids and looting, a transition that occurred between Sunday the 11th and Monday the 12th when I arrived at King Shaka airport. Ntuthuko told me than in his area in Toti, men were carrying fridges, stoves, anything and everything on the night of the 11th already.

For all of us, there exists a cognitive dissonance between what we are hearing analytically and what we have seen reported live. We saw the political factionalism on Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp; we saw the food riots; we saw the looting; we saw the unemployed youth rebel and raid shops. We saw a frenzy of irrationality in action, the consequences of which will hurt both those in poverty who participated and those who did not. I saw a lot of this first hand, but we all saw it on social media. 

Will this wave of anarchy change our understanding of protest and its political value in our democracy? There is no question. Peaceful protest is a democratic right; incitement to make the country ungovernable is not. The positive aspect of the events of last week is the strengthening of communitarian bonds across the country. 

On the Bluff, shops stayed open all week, guarded by a mix of private security and civilians from diverse ethnicities. Vehicle entry points to the Bluff were controlled in the same way, assisting the smattering of police spread too thin on the ground throughout the city. As a predominantly mixed, strongly working class area, the Bluff still has what Kloof and Ballito do not: the curry den on the corner, and the locally owned and run superette. 

I survived the week on takeaways, as shop queues stretched for miles and stocks were very low. Luckily, I could walk to fetch my curry from across the road, where I met people from Kloof and other upper middle class areas who had driven to fetch a simple Bunny-chow - their malls were destroyed. This civilian communitarianism signals the possible germination of a deeply embedded democratic culture where ethnicity no longer divides. This may help ward off predictions of long waves of destabilisation.

This is also how we as a nation dealt with misinformation and disinformation on the riots, especially on platforms like Twitter, TikTok, Facebook and Whatsapp. Citizens quickly reacted to Whatsapp group requests for help protecting areas targeted for looting, unlike our government leadership who told us the unlikely tale that 12 people masterminded this unprecedented chaos. Civilians became sources of on the ground intelligence, further showing up the almost dead duck State Security Agency (SSA) which was caught napping or, as it is rumoured, was involved in the insurgency (the latter not unlikely, given that the SSA is a pro Zuma construction of his corruption-riddled Presidency, requiring a tailored secret service to prop up our naked Emperor).

Across KZN, Gauteng and other parts of the country, communitarian groups reacted quickly to threats of looting and arson. Civilians used common sense in confronting potential threats by triangulating information on social media to ensure hoax messages were filtered out. Back home in Cape Town, intelligence sources closely monitored social media coverage of potential looting on Saturday the 17th. The massive, united display of support from civilians for law and order gives hope that from the ashes, a stronger democracy will emerge.

On a more sobering note, the magnitude of the political and economic crisis the riots draw attention to is a volatile mix for future unrest. The estimated financial loss to GDP is around R20 billion. What are we seeing on a state level that encourages us to believe that our already disastrous COVID economic situation, with 43.2% unemployment and 2.2 million job losses, will now not be compounded? 

The impact on eThekwini alone is dire. Acting City Manager, Musa Mbhele, is on record stating that the city has experienced more than R1-billion of stock losses and R15-billion of property and equipment damage. Again  tragically, local businesses are the hardest hit with 55,000 informal traders disrupted. Around 40 000 formal businesses have also been negatively impacted. 

Between the riot fund SASRIA, and the efforts made by the Presidency to rally more than 90 captains of industry to put in place social security safety nets, there are glimmers of hope. Along with these safety nets which may include the repurposing of COVID relief, according to Ramaphosa's statement on July 20, the revival of businesses is going to require a team effort economically. We can only hope that the Presidency will work on the rapid, pro-active restructuring of both our inept political intelligence nerve centre that is the State Security Agency, as well as on the socio-economic tinderbox that inequality continues to visit on our nation way too long after the end of Apartheid. May there be more Mandela moments, and with this crash and burn, may the Zuma era be banished for good.

Prof Lisa Thompson is a specialist in the field of the political economy of development at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) School of Government.